Season 2 introduces new mysteries and more pop culture references while keeping its focus on what makes the series so compelling - endearing, genuine characters grappling with their greatest fears.
[This review contains SPOILERS for Stranger Things season 2, episode 1.]
When Stranger Things first premiered on Netflix it took audiences on a trip down memory lane to a childhood they may not have lived, but they have certainly experienced through the works of Stephen King, John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, and more. The series blended a fear of the unknown with a fear of growing up and facing a reality that isn't as easily traversed as, say, a game of Dungeons & Dragons. In a very short time, the series became the best 1980s horror/coming-of-age tale not actually from the 1980s.
The first season came out of nowhere and quickly generated discussions and wild theories. For its part, Stranger Things season 2 is releasing to a wave of anticipation and high expectations. Thankfully, that pressure doesn't appear to have bothered series creators the Duffer brothers one bit, with the first episode of season 2 introducing new mysteries and more pop culture references, while keeping its focus on what makes the series so compelling: endearing, genuine characters grappling with their greatest fears. Stranger Things season 2 isn't interested in rehashing its first season, instead it's choosing to explore the fallout from that first trip to the Upside Down.
Once the series returns to Hawkins, Indiana, it's clear that the events of the previous year hang over the town, coloring every moment - from a mother dropping her son off at the arcade to conspiracy theorists insisting the Russians are using psionic little girls to invade. Along with a sense of foreboding, a feeling of melancholy permeates this first episode, giving season 2 an atmosphere that's as sad as it is eerie. Those who lived through the events of last year have been irrevocably altered by their experiences, and the trauma endured lingers over every scene.
No where does this feel more apparent than with Will - the young boy whose strange disappearance kicked off last season's mystery. He may have been rescued from the Upside Down and spared some of the horrors witnessed there, but he cannot escape it. Like a soldier returning from war with PTSD, Will is experiencing flashbacks to his time in that cursed place - but are they just hallucinations or is the Upside Down seeping though into the real world?
For the most part, though, Will's friends have readjusted to their lives as young nerds, still navigating that perilous pubescent journey. A new girl arrives in town, spurring new emotions from Dustin and Lucas, but for Mike, the only girl he can think of is Eleven. Unfortunately, she hasn't been seen or heard from since vanishing after defeating the Demogorgon. Mike hasn't given up hope, however; regularly calling out on his walkie-talkie on the off chance she'll one day answer back. Eleven's whereabouts are revealed by the end of the first episode, but just what she's been up to remains a mystery for this season to explore.
Joyce is also still reeling from last year, having lived through a parent's worst nightmare she has become even more protective of Will. She drives him everywhere, is overly concerned with his well-being, and brings him to therapy where he can freely discuss the strange things he's seeing. Though, it should be noted how terribly suspicious it is that Will's doctor is located at the same facility as where the government was experimenting on Eleven. Maybe, don't take your kid there? Sheriff Hopper joins them on these appointments, seeming to indicate this facility is now a safe place, but don't forget that it's still unclear what exactly happened after he got in that car with government agents in the season 1 finale. Hopper is a rock on Stranger Things, grounding the series even when it gets truly bizarre, so to have it turn out he has been compromised would be a major blow with devastating consequences.
Will may have been the one who suffered the greatest trauma, but what Nancy went through last year has shaken her to the core. Not only must she deal with having been terrorized by the Demogorgon, like many of Stranger Things' characters, but she must also cope with the death of her friend Barb, a loss that continues to haunt her. Fans turned Barb's death into a movement, demanding justice for the slain teen, and it's something the series decides to draw inspiration from. The hope that Barb could still be alive is thrust in Nancy's face, forcing her to grapple with her emotions. She knows that Barb is dead, but is unable to share the ghastly truth of it, even with Barb's parents.
Stranger Things season 2 isn't just delivering more of what audiences loved the first time (though, don't worry, it totally does), but it's building on that foundation, crafting an even stronger emotional resonance by having its characters cope with their trauma in different ways. Season 2 is more than a continuation of where the story left off, it's an important step in healing those still-festering wounds.
Stranger Things season 2 releases on Netflix this Friday, October 27.